Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Genki Sushi, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

If you were to ask me for my favorite food, for the last 20 years the answer would (and continues to) be sushi. I find its freshness, lightness, diversity of forms, and general clean yet present flavors to be heavenly. The bites are small which lets me try a lot of different varieties, and you get to try different creative combinations making it basically the Lego of food. And Seattle is lucky to have (in my experience) one of the best, if not the best, sushi restaurants on the West Coast — Nishino.

But Nishino isn’t exactly cheap, I can’t eat there all the time. I also have children and I definitely can’t afford to have them eat there all the time. I thought teaching them to love sushi was a good idea, but it’s come with some cons as well — namely, they want to eat sushi all the time. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to go out to eat with my kids and still eat decent food (and not yucky “kid-friendly” food). I’ve documented that in this post about eating out with your kids. One key secrets of taking kids out to eat sushi is finding a restaurant with a conveyor belt. In Japan, this is called Kaiten Sushi. At some point, some restaurateur who wants to appeal to parents will realize that you can put other kinds of food on a conveyor belt, not just sushi. But that day has yet to come and that’s not the focus of today’s discussion.

Seattle is lucky to have three different establishments specializing in conveyor belt sushi, some with multiple locations. They are Sushi Land, Blue C Sushi, and Genki Sushi. Sushi Land, also called Marinepolis Sushi Land (or even Marine Polis Sushi Land) is a pacific northwest chain with locations in Portland and all around Seattle and its suburbs. Blue C Sushi is a local endeavor and has five locations around Seattle and Bellevue. And finally, Genki Sushi is a chain of restaurants from Hawaii with their new Seattle location as their first outpost on the mainland.

Conveyor belt sushi is a staple in Japan and I’m glad it’s finally gotten to the states. Given that one of my standard activities with the kids is to take them out for lunch and the latest kids movie, we have sampled each of the local establishments multiple times. In truth, I never expected to write about any of them here on Tastingmenu. Mainly because I try to write only about restaurants that I love or really like. Chain sushi delivered in mass quantities typically doesn’t get there. But in the case of Genki Sushi, at least for me, it has.

I’m not claiming that Genki Sushi is delivering the best sushi of all time or even authentic sushi. In fact, it’s a relatively recent development (and a feedback loop from America) that sushi choices like the Spicy Tuna roll can even be found in a handful of sushi establishments in Tokyo. The complicated makis, the alternative wrappers, the fancy combinations appear to be all non-traditional innovation in the sushi arena. And that’s fine. I like tradition, and I also like innovation. Sometimes separately, and sometimes together. Genki is squarely in the innovation camp. In fact, many of their items are some type of riff on the classic spicy tuna, or incorporate non-traditional ingredients like Thai sweet chili sauce. There’s also a nod to their Hawaiian roots with spam ngiri (a Hawaiian staple – though typically in musubi form – which is pretty good in my opinion). Mainly though, Genki Sushi is enjoyable because the food is fresh, the ratios in terms of fish to rice are good, the variety is creative and especially flavorful, and they are not expensive. (Blue C is pretty pricey in my experience relative to both Sushi Land and Genki Sushi).

I used to go to conveyor belt sushi cause I needed to economize as my kids wanted sushi almost every week. And while it’s no Nishino (as almost nothing is), we now go to Genki Sushi periodically, not because we have to, but because we want to. I can’t argue with my desire to return which is ultimately what guides my decisions on which restaurants to write about.

For the address of this restaurant as well as all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries check out our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Delancey, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

Two weeks ago Seattle readers had a chance to shoot their arrows at my post about Ten Restaurants that Seattle Needs Now. Note number 11 (yes, it was the bonus entry):

11. Pizza. Actual real good New York pizza. (BONUS #11) — While I’m not a fan of NYC’s bagels, just about any random pizza place you walk into on any corner in Manhattan is going to be way way better than the best pizza you can get in Seattle. I don’t know if it’s the water, or the temperature of the oven. And no, I don’t want to bake it at home. My oven is not suitable for baking a pizza no matter how many bricks I jam in there. Memo to the next person who’s dying to open a restaurant that serves lots of salmon and other pacific northwest specialities [sic]. The salmon are endangered and I’m sick of them anyway. Good pizza… not endangered. Just impossible to find. Like the sasquatch. When you open your new pizza place, a trip to Totonno’s on Coney Island will be necessary for reference.

Anyone offended by my putting eleven items in a ten item list can now rest easy. Number eleven has been delivered in the form of Delancey. I’ve known through friends that for months that Brandon Pettit was slaving away at creating incredibly high quality authentic pizza here in Seattle. The oven gets to 900 degrees, the pizzas don’t bake… they are essentially being fired in a kiln… like they’re supposed to be.

The pizza I desire, the pizza I need, is the pizza that I tasted at Totonno’s on Coney Island in New York. The dough is thin and unevenly cooked but in a good way. Splotches of burnt blisters and stretches of chewy goodness. A Totonno’s pizza is not carefully cooked, it’s blasted. And frankly, nothing else compares. Savory sauce, fresh mozarella, possibly some basil, it’s not thick, it’s not deep, it’s a grilled disc with all the ingredients, textures, and flavors in perfect balance.

This is what Brandon has created at Delancey in Seattle. It is unquestionably authentic, and incredibly delicious. Seattle finally has real pizza. To those people who urged me to leave Seattle if I wasn’t happy with its lack of quality pizza, I urge them to never go to Delancey. The presence of extraordinary pizza in their town would clearly upset them to the point that they might have to leave themselves.

It’s really unfair to go to a new restaurant on the second day with any intention of forming a judgment. I rarely write about restaurants I don’t like, and I was fully prepared to give Delancey multiple chances over the next few months before forming an opinion. But my enthusiasm for the pizza we ate: a Brooklyn with mozarella, grana, and basil, a pepperoni, and a crimini mushroom with thyme was so overwhelming that I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone.

Delancey pizza isn’t a uniform food. It’s a combination of ingredients that only stay connected in a very narrow window. Think of the dough, the cheese, sauce, and veggies/meat as elements from the periodic table that only combine when conditions are just right. A few degrees off in either direction and you have a mess. The crimini mushroom pizza wasn’t a block of cheese and dough with sad dessicated mushrooms dotting the landscape. It was all the ingredients joining together voluntarily to present a varied experience for your mouth. Crispy grilled flavor, subtle cheese, oh there’s a hint of the thyme, the mushroom is cooked just right… not overcooked but rather… soft and almost buttery, and so on.

Delancey has other items on the menu. It also has wine. It’s a sit down restaurant and doesn’t take reservations except for parties of six or more where it has one table available per night. Personally I would prefer they strip out all the tables, get rid of the waitstaff, and make nothing but pizza all day and all night. But that’s my selfish desire to increase the output. In truth, having a bit of a sense of how hard Brandon has worked on Delancey, I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do. Especially given how good the pizza is on only the second day of being open to the public. So instead, let me say this: any young pizza dreamer who hopes to one day make incredible pizza should go intern for and work for Brandon. Maybe one day he’ll let you open up another branch of Delancey that’s closer to my house. But my sense is that it will take you years to earn his trust that you’ll do it just so. So you better get started because I’d like a branch of Delancey to open closer to my house as soon as possible. Until then, I’ll be making the trek to Ballard on a regular basis. And if I look a little doughier over the next few months, blame Delancey.

(My camera should be back from Canon this week. Apologies in advance for the pictures as they were taken on a loaner. I promise to go back to Delancey and take better ones.)

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries as well as addresses for all the Seattle restaurants we write about at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Chatterbox Cafe, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

I do my absolute best to not judge restaurants based on how they look. Ultimately the food is all I really care about. But I’ll admit, it’s not always easy. Some out of the way adorable hole-in-the-wall with immigrants from the country that originated the cuisine actually making said cuisine for other immigrants from said country will invariably get my hopes up. (Yes, I use profiling in choosing where to eat.) And the house restaurant at a Ramada Inn, I’m usually pretty sure I don’t need to sample it to know what they’re about. That said, prudence is crucial, as one can never tell.

The Chatterbox Cafe, located just south of Seattle’s Capitol Hill district is one of these barely decorated, bubble tea, we serve everything kind of places. They run on a shoestring, and cater to the local businesses and students who need a place for a sandwich or a drink. They’ll get you coffee, bubble tea, a smoothie, as well as a Chicken Caesar Salad, a “Zesty” Roast Beef Sandwich, and Singapore Curry. And this hodgepodge of food all comes out of a kitchen that (from my vantage point) looks to be just barely bigger than the hot plate sitting on a microwave I imagine they’re cooking on.

That’s why it was so strange to eat their Chicken Katsu. Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, often served with a brown sauce and rice. It hails from Japan. And while I’m no expert, I am not without some experience eating the real deal. And to be honest, the Chicken Katsu (Tonkatsu’s chicken cousin) made at Chatterbox is pretty phenomenal in my opinion and (to me) tastes quite authentic. It’s crispy on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside. The sauce has just the right sour notes. Yum yum. (Is the mayo in the realm of authenticity? My recollection is no, but you never know. I do recall some surprisingly liberal mayo distribution while I was in Japan.)

I ate at Chatterbox a year ago and thought it must be a fluke. But here I was again and the Chicken Katsu was just as good. This time I also had the Chicken Satay which was also quite good. Juicy, soft, thick and meaty, and quite flavorful. Also sauced beautifully.

The Thai Green Curry with Chicken (we were having a “chickenganza”) was the only loser in our meal on this day. The meat was dry and flavorless. I enjoyed the curry broth even though I found it thin. I thought the flavor was peppery and enjoyable. My dining companion who claims to be a Thai Green Curry expert wasn’t even pleased with the broth which he thought didn’t have much flavor.

To me, the Chicken Katsu and Chicken Satay are good enough reasons to go back alone. I’ll try and get up the courage to gently explore the rest of (at least) the Asian menu to see what else measures up. But even if these two dishes are the only winners, I think they’re a great reason to head to the Chatterbox Cafe. In my opinion, they make the best Chicken Katsu in Seattle. And if I’d eaten it in Japan I still would have felt good about it.

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Ten Restaurants Seattle Needs Now

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

As I’ve written about restaurants for the past seven years I have focused not only on Seattle but on restaurants all over the world. After eating here and abroad, one can’t help but make some comparisons. And for awhile, I felt disappointed in Seattle from a food perspective. It’s not that we don’t have some absolute standouts. We do. We even have a few that would compare to restaurants in any major food Mecca. It’s the missing pieces that cause me to lament our local food scene. But the more I thought about it, the more i realized, that given its size, and relative to similar cities in the rest of the country, Seattle is actually no slouch. I put Seattle in the same league for restaurant quality and diversity as Boston, Washington, DC, and pretty close to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I consider all these cities basically food peers. Chicago is above them all, and New York (of course) well above that.

And while Seattle can hold its own, it’s by no means complete. There are many holes in the Seattle restaurant scene, and I’ve listed the things I miss the most below. I have little doubt that this list will spark some good debate. But if I am informed that I’ve overlooked some key Seattle food outpost, I’ll be only too thrilled to check it out. Also feel free to suggest if I’ve missed some glaring holes. I’m sure I have. Here we go (in no particular order):

  1. A proper pastrami sandwich. — Yes, I’ve been to Goldberg’s, Roxy’s, and Market House Meats. I don’t always follow the maxim that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, but in this case I will (follow the maxim). We’re not talking about rocket science here either. I want something that approximates Katz’s Deli in New York. And frankly, I don’t think that’s too much to ask for. Fly it in if you have to.
  2. Delicious Dim Sum — I don’t understand why a Pacific city like Seattle with a healthy population of Chinese immigrants doesn’t have high quality Dim Sum, but it doesn’t. We’re bookended by San Francisco and Vancouver (and especially Richmond, B.C.) and all of them have fantastic Dim Sum. So should we. See Sun Sui Wah in Richmond, B.C. for reference.
  3. High quality Chinese food — I’ve recently discovered two pretty excellent sources for Szechuan food in Seattle. Not world class per se, but with some pretty great standout dishes — Szechuan Chef in Bellevue, and Chiang’s Gourmet in North Seattle on Lake City Way. These are in the same class as (or perhaps slightly better than) Sichuanese Cuisine on Jackson in the I.D. But for Mandarin or Cantonese the best I’ve found is Hing Loon. And while I’m fond of the ladies who run the front of the house and have had many consistently decent meals there, it’s not what we deserve in terms of higher quality Chinese Food. See Hunan Homes in San Francisco for reference.
  4. Dunkin Donuts — Waa waa. I can hear the complaining. Yes, this is a corporate donut chain. Yes, we have Top Pot, and even Daily Dozen. I like both and they clearly have their strengths. But when I’m not in the mood for hand-crafted mostly cake donuts (I know Top Pot has some raised, but not as much of a selection as I’d like), or for mini-cinnamon and sugar donuts, I want a broad selection of fried-donut goodness, and Krispy Kreme is just too sugary for me. Dunkin Donuts chocolate frosted, jelly filled, and honey dipped hit exactly the right spot. And it’s crazy to me that we don’t have one. I believe that the Dunkin Donuts ads that come on TV periodically are designed to torture me personally.
  5. In-N-Out Burger — Since we’re on the topic of fast food chains, nothing beats In-N-Out Burger in my opinion. The hamburgers are loaded with flavor and freshness, and perhaps most importantly, have the perfect ratio of meat and accompaniments to bun. I’ve had ridiculously expensive hamburgers made from wagyu beef and filled with foie gras. They simply do not compare to In-n-Out. And don’t even mention Dick’s to me. Seriously. Don’t mention it. Hey In-n-Out folks, how about expanding north?
  6. Authentic Israeli falafel — Falafel is a staple across much of the middle east. But did you know that while some of it is made from chickpeas, some is also made from fava beans. Also, size varies across this region. Bottom line, I like all the varieties but I’ll admit to being partial to the Israeli chickpea-based moderately sized falafel balls. The endless bowls of various chopped salads and pickled items just make the experience positively perfect for me. For awhile a lovely gentleman of Moroccan Jewish descent ran Kosher Delight down in Pike Place Market that did a pretty good job on this front. But he’s long gone and nobody has replaced him to my knowlege. Rami’s in Brookline, MA does a really excellent job at this, as do I’m sure many outlets in New York City. They’re more focused on chummus, but I’d settle for a branch of NYC’s Hummus Place as well.
  7. A really good bagel — No, I’m not referring to bagels from New York City. They’re fine, but not even close to the best in my opinion. Strangely, the source of the best bagels on the planet, IMHO, is Canada. Toronto and Montreal to be specific. And these fine cities produce not one type of superlative bagel but two! The Toronto bagel embodied by Gryfe’s Bagels is light and airy — almost bread-like. I can eat 3 between the cash register and the car and not even notice. The Montreal bagel, exemplified by St-Viateur Bagel is chewy, flavorful and almost more in the realm of the pretzel. Beggars can’t be choosers and I’d take either one. Right now the bagel choices are sad here in Seattle. Won’t someone take pity on us?
  8. Refined and delicious Indian cuisine — To me, the regional standard bearer is, of course, Vij’s in Vancouver. I’d heard that there was a possibility he’d bring some of his expertise to a Seattle outpost possibly partnering with the Wild Ginger ownership. But that was a few years ago and I’ve seen nothing since.
  9. Fine vegetarian vegetable dining — While I wish there were more original superlative fine dining in Seattle, I’m relatively content with Lampreia which is absolutely world class from my perspective. Some cities don’t even have that. But, some of my absolute favorite high end meals have been all veggie. One at Alain Passard’s L’ Arpège in Paris and one at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York City. To me the transcendance happens when the chef decides to cook vegetables in a way that celebrates the vegetables, and abandons any notion of trying to compensate for the lack of meat in the dish. This is when veggie dishes truly shine. Don’t compensate, vegetables are amazing enough on their own and should be highlighted. This restaurant I’m wishing for wouldn’t be all veggie because of a disdain for meat, it would focus in this fashion because of a deep love of vegetables.
  10. Street food. Really diverse street food.Asia has some of the best street food in the world. The middle east is pretty amazing too. But at this point I’d settle for New York City’s predictable street food vendors or Portland’s more diverse street food conclaves. Personally I’d like the city to insist that Thai street food vendors be imported to practice their craft on Seattle’s streets. But that seems unlikely, so I’ll settle for something more local. I know some folks may be working on this, so please please hurry. When I need meat on a stick, I can’t be expected to actually go inside a building to get it. I want it on the sidewalk and I want it now.
  11. Pizza. Actual real good New York pizza. (BONUS #11) — While I’m not a fan of NYC’s bagels, just about any random pizza place you walk into on any corner in Manhattan is going to be way way better than the best pizza you can get in Seattle. I don’t know if it’s the water, or the temperature of the oven. And no, I don’t want to bake it at home. My oven is not suitable for baking a pizza no matter how many bricks I jam in there. Memo to the next person who’s dying to open a restaurant that serves lots of salmon and other pacific northwest specialities [sic]. The salmon are endangered and I’m sick of them anyway. Good pizza… not endangered. Just impossible to find. Like the sasquatch. When you open your new pizza place, a trip to Totonno’s on Coney Island will be necessary for reference.

That’s the list. Restaurateurs please seek financing, and critics let your arrows fly. :-)

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Old School Frozen Custard, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

With all the fuss about new ice cream shops opening in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, I wonder if Old School Frozen Custard has gotten the attention it deserves. Open for a few weeks I’ve been there more often than I care to admit. The vintage pictures of Seattle high schools on the wall are cute, but it’s the smell of fresh waffle cone being made that hits you when you walk in. But before that, let’s back up. What’s with “custard” anyway?

The folks at Old School will tell you that Frozen Custard is prevalent in the Midwest. It differs from Ice Cream in that it has some egg yolk which replaces a bunch of the typical fat in the ice cream. The folks at Old School say their base (imported from the Midwest) uses a tiny amount of pasteurized egg yolk to reduce the fat by a third. (No, I’m not advocating frozen custard as a diet food.) Every hour (when things are busy) the folks at Old School make fresh frozen custard, flavoring it on the spot in their big custard machine. Vanilla and chocolate are staples and each day there’s a new special flavor. I’ve seen Tiramisu, Blueberry, and Lemon (and tasted them all). On this day the specialty flavor was Chocolate Banana Nut.

(I did confirm with an official Midwesterner that frozen custard is indeed found in the Midwest and is “butterier and creamier” than regular ice cream.)

OK. Here’s the deal. Flavor-wise, the vanilla is excellent, the chocolate is very good, and the specials have been hit or miss for me. For example, I didn’t get much banana in the Chocolate Banana Nut but my eating companions got a mouthful. And despite that I’m a flavor snob (and perhaps it’s because I generally get the vanilla) the texture of the frozen custard is what wins the day for me. Holy crap! That is the densest, silkiest ice cream I’ve ever had. It is just an absolute pleasure to eat. And since you’re only dealing with a foundation of three flavors each day, the toppings available are numerous.

Various sauces and syrups are on the menu including all the zillions of candy/cookie toppings you would expect. The waffle cones are handmade to order on the spot. Hence the welcoming smell. There are enough topping varieties to keep you busy for some time. Right now my favored combo is hot fudge and whole peanuts. There’s something about the whole peanuts that just ratchets up the deliciousness relative to crushed peanuts.

Bottom line: I’m still a fan of ice cream parlors with lots of interesting, handmade, delicious flavors. And Old School Frozen Custard could certainly ramp up their flavors, but the texture of their custard is positively mesmerizing. While I have plenty of choices of where to get my ice cream, I keep coming back to Old School.

(Note on the pictures: another week without my trusty DSLR means another week of crappy pictures. Damn you iPhone for tempting me with your convenience!)

UPDATE: I got my camera back and it’s behaving… for now. Added a five more pictures to the gallery. They’re better quality. And yes, this necessitated a repeat visit to Old School. Oh well.

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Mike’s Chili Parlor, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

My camera is broken. Again. How the heck can I take decent pictures of yummy food to share with you without my camera? As it happens, my camera repair shop is located in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. And every time I drive my camera over there (which is way too many times) I pass by Mike’s Chili Parlor and think to myself… “self, that looks like a place I need to try”. Maybe my camera keeps breaking to get me to go to Mike’s. So I did. With my trusty iPhone and its not-so-great camera functionality by my side.

I ordered two quarts of chili to go and took them with me to a barbecue my friends were having celebrating Al Franken’s belated win. The theme was food from Minnesota. I had no idea what food from Minnesota looks like, I found out — there was hot dish, cake cake, and other “food”. (I thought to myself, chili counts. It’s from the middle of the country. And as a product of the coasts, that’s close enough for me. Yeah, I know, that’s offensive coast-ish snobbery, but at least It’s honest.) Anyway, I showed up with two plastic containers filled with chili. It’s not like I brought sushi or foie gras.

There are times when you want something subtle, something refined, something that challenges you. This was not one of those times. Mike’s chili is like the bar/”chili parlor” where Mike sells his chili (is there a real Mike still there? I forgot to ask) — simple, straightforward, packed with texture and solid flavor, and kind of greasy. Beans, ground beef, and a strong but not spicy sauce bringing it all together. I imagine if I’d eaten my chili there that the oil would have been more integrated. It’s not their fault that it separated a touch by the time I got it to the BBQ. That said, after some quick mixing, everything more or less stayed together, and the chili disappeared in no time. I diced some onions to put on mine.

Mike’s chili is basic. Definitely not fancy. But it’s also reassuring and unassuming in its honesty. What you see is what you get. And what you get is some very decent flavorful and filling red chili.

As for my pictures of Mike’s chili, maybe my regular camera is too fancy to take pictures of this chili. Maybe it knew that it had to sacrifice itself to get me to head over to Mike’s and that my simple phone camera was the right way to take these pictures. Or maybe my camera just sucks and wants to make me unhappy and cost me money. (Or maybe I spend way too much time anthropomorphizing my camera and need to spend some time discussing this tendency with a professional?)

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Trophy Cupcakes, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

Small-ish cylinder of cake. Large-ish dollop of frosting. You’re talking cupcake my friend. And that’s my language.

I’ll admit to being turned off by the trendiness of cupcakes. In general when something becomes popular I become more averse to it. (Hence my bad luck at investing but that’s another story.) But trendiness aside, there is simply no denying the appeal of a cupcake. In general, as human beings, we are wired to like the small, the tiny, the miniaturized. And a tiny cake with frosting for one is adorable.

But adorable is not enough to win the day. Seattle may not be Manhattan but we have a decently competitive cupcake scene nonetheless — and Trophy wins the day. I have two main criteria by which to judge a cupcake. They are cake, and frosting. Duh. The single biggest crime when it comes to cake is that it’s too dry and not flavorful. Trophy has moist flavorful cake. Their Hummingbird cupcake, which is banana cake with bits of pineapple and nuts, is almost like a super moist muffin. In fact, why aren’t more muffins like this? The straight up chocolate and vanilla are the dictionary definitions of chocolate and vanilla cupcake cake. Their warm round smooth unintrusive flavors fill your mouth while the frosting smushes everything together with creamy goodness.

When it comes to frosting there are two paths — the typical sugar bomb, or the more intense buttercream approach. While the sugar bomb can be all granular and really belongs only on supermarket cupcakes, I have to admit that buttercream can be too waxy and oily tasting. And at least in my experience, that’s true of most buttercream frostings I try. Not the case at Trophy. Their frosting has a dense center, but it’s neither greasy nor heavy. It’s frosting with depth but the flavor is up front as opposed to the fat.

On the creativity front, Trophy is no slouch either. The keep things simple, but well executed. Nothing too crazy. Just a focus on clean simple combinations like Lemon and Coconut, or S’mores, or mint and chocolate.

If I had to pick on one thing about Trophy it’s that they don’t sell their mini-cupcakes except for special orders. If you thought that miniaturized cakes with frosting were adorable, what about miniaturized miniaturized cakes with frosting. That’s called double adorable in my book. [Note: there is no actual book.] But small is not enough. The trick is the ratios. Trophy’s competitors have mini-cupcakes too, but the ratios are off. The cake is a little too big. Bitesize is really the way to go with just a dollop of frosting on top. Luckily I happened to stop by Trophy one day when they were having some kind of open house and they were handing them out. It seemed like I ate a hundred of them. (It “seemed” that way to the lady counting the number of cupcakes I ate and giving me dirty looks.)

We used to get cupcakes at the cupcakery near our house. Since we started eating Trophy’s, we’re stuck driving all the way to Wallingford (or now University Village) to get our cupcake fix. I suggest you do the same.

See all our Seattle writeups and photo galleries at our Seattle restaurant guide on Tastingmenu.

Volunteer Park Cafe, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

(This post is being simulcast on the Seattle PI and Tastingmenu. I encourage readers of each to check out the other. End of announcement.)

Some confessions up front. Two of my co-workers have basically moved into Volunteer Park Cafe. They work out of the cafe many days out of the week. This adorable little cafe located in an otherwise residential portion of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle is quite homey, so it’s no surprise they’re making it their workday “home”. In addition, as I joined them and another friend for lunch, after we ordered, one of the “regulars” informed the owner that I’d be writing about my meal. In addition to all the food we ordered and paid for, a plate of free cookies and cake magically appeared towards the end of our meal. I make it a rule not to let restaurant owners know why I’m there and I pay for my food. I chastised the informer appropriately, but I did eat those cookies.

My general philosophy is that I try to be as fair as possible. I don’t ask for special treatment, and I don’t expect any. That said, I do photograph my food and restaurant folk are not dopes. However, in my experience, any diner that loyally patronizes a restaurant and interacts with the staff in a consistently positive way will get treated like a prince. People in the restaurant business tend to take care of their loyal customers whether they are blogging about the meal or not. OK… enough disclosure. On to the food!

As I’ve written before, as much as I may like the decor or environment of a restaurant, and Volunteer Park Cafe is way cute, I really count it for very little as ultimately I care primarily about the food. Luckily, the food at Volunteer Park Cafe does not disappoint. This is not complicated fair, but it is executed well and with a delicate touch. You stand in line walking past all the prepared baked goods, cookies, and quiches as you decide what to order off the big menu. It’s hard not to salivate. Luckily there’s a glass divider keeping saliva squarely away from the food.

We ended up kicking off with some of the Ham Quiche. Solid if not striking. Moist insides, flaky buttery shell, and a smooth wide flavor. No sparks, but satisfying. The platter of cured meat is hard to beat with a little bean salad, cheese, and cornichons to adorn your bread and meat combinations. Adorn we did. It’s hard to say anything bad about flavorful cured pork products, on fresh french bread, accompanied by various flavorful condiments. And I won’t. The same goes for the Prosciutto Mozarella Baguette. We should have had a more diverse menu but the prosciutto was hard to ignore.

Luckily we ordered the Chicken Salad. A chicken salad sandwich is not something to be ordered lightly. In fact, I generally make it a rule to order anything other than a chicken salad sandwich on menus. A chicken salad sandwich does not automatically get all the benefit of thin slices of smokey ham like the prosciutto sandwich does. Prosciutto sandwiches start with the ball one yard from the goal line. Chicken salad sandwiches start from deep in their own end zone. A very bland end zone. The typical response is to season it. Heavily. Curry is always a favorite path to take. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, the chicken salad was covered with melty cheese. The whole thing came together in a creamy, melty, stretchy, almost sweet bite. The seasoning didn’t need to be “exotic”, it was just right.

While I’m relatively picky about desserts (my co-blogger’s are the exception of course) a cookie is the way to my heart. Chocolate chip with toffee bits that has just the right balance between chewiness and crispyness? Yes! But raisins are my mortal enemy. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do about it. I will never like them. Other dried fruit I’m generally OK with but over the past several years there is a deplorable trend to dry other fruits as some sort of raising substitute — I’m looking at you cherries and cranberries! Combine that with oatmeal raisin cookies masquerading as chocolate chip cookies presented to those who don’t examine their cookies closely and you can start to understand the depth of my fear. As you can imagine, seeing a Cherry Chocolate Oatmeal cookie on my plate felt like a tease at best, and a nightmare at worst. And then, I tried it. That same crispy chewy yin yang harmony was at play. But instead of the comfort of the toffee bits as with the other cookie, this time those dried cherries transcended their raisin cousins and added little sparks of bright sour flavor into my cookie. Fantastic.

Here’s the thing. The folks running Volunteer Park Cafe are not confused. They know what they’re about. Simple, flavorful, slightly refined, down-to-earth, comfort. There’s no need to try to be anything else. This is plenty.

Red Bowls, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

Seattle does not exactly have a thriving street food scene. Skillet recently got temporarily closed down, while Maximus Minimus is now open for business (the truck is shaped like a pig!!!). City regulations make it a difficult challenge (though I hear that may be changing). What many people don’t understand about quality street food (the best example of which can be found in Bangkok IMHO) is that at its best, it’s a singular example of one dish done perfectly. The focus, the freshness, the immediacy all help increase the odds that the food you’re getting is good.

And this is why I have no problem falling in love with a restaurant over one dish. One. Perfect. Dish.

A thriving street food scene would not only enrich our city for tourists, it would make the downtown Seattle lunch options much richer. Your choices today are basically fast-food, soup/sandwich/salad, cafeteria quality ethnic food, and the businessman’s sit down lunch. Not a delectable assortment. There are a few exceptions, and while it’s not “street food” as it has its own small establishment, my favorite lunch spot is Red Bowls on Third near Columbia in downtown Seattle. Open only for lunch, five days a week, and run by a sweet Korean couple, Red Bowls is a beacon of focus and freshness in the otherwise overcooked lunch landscape. It’s not that they only make one dish. It’s that they only make one dish that I have fallen in love with. It’s possible the other items on the menu are great. One of my co-workers assures me there are. And they cover a range of Korean protein/rice/veggie bowl combos (as well as some Udon bowls to boot). Despite my constant efforts to expand my experiences, I can’t help but order the same thing every time I go into Red Bowls.

Imagine a thick layer of rice (brown at your option but I always get white). On top of the rice is a heaping helping of fresh vegetables. Carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli. Crunchy, filling, raw, healthy, tasty vegetables. And then a generous portion of chopped raw fish — tuna and salmon combo for me. On top some spicy korean sauce as well as sesame oil and chopped scallions. And finally, because I ask for it every time, some avocado slices on top.

I’ll admit, the slivers of pickled ginger do complete the sushi-ness of the dish, and I do like pickled ginger, but I always leave it on the side. For some reason, I think the dish is complete without it.

For under $10, this bowl of fresh spicy deliciousness pleases every single time. It’s like a huge bowl of Spicy Tuna Roll (without the roll). I’ll admit, that if you put a pile of rice, raw fish, and spicy sauce in front of me I’ll have a hard time not liking it. But the freshness of all the ingredients, the combination of the sesame oil and the scallions, and the value have me in love.

And while it doesn’t affect the way the food tastes, the fact that the proprietors of Red Bowls are absolute sweethearts doesn’t hurt. And if a bowl of spicy (or not spicy) raw fish doesn’t make you happy, I’m assured by many of my dining companions that there are plenty of other delicious dishes on the menu that employ the same core values of freshness and focus. Maybe some day I’ll even try one of them.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would replace 90% of the lunch establishments in downtown Seattle with single dish carts/restaurants focusing on one item, and delivering it consistently and with super fresh ingredients day in and day out. But since I don’t have that magic wand I’ll have to keep eating at Red Bowls and wait for a real street food scene to develop in Seattle. We’re having some fits and starts so now may be the time after all.

Administrative note: Our local formerly print and now web only newspaper has been going without a restaurant column since they dumped the dead tree edition. Since we have an obsession with finding quality restaurants and writing about them, it seemed like there might be a good match. As of today, we’ll have regular Seattle restaurant reviews appearing on Tastingmenu and the Seattle PI simultaneously. We encourage readers of the PI to visit the rest of Tastingmenu where we have other food writing beyond just Seattle restaurant reviews, and we encourage readers of Tastingmenu to check out the rest of the PI. Apparently there’s more to life than food, and they do a good job covering that stuff as well. : ) Should be a fun experiment.

Spinasse, Seattle, Washington

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Seattle is a funny place. Despite having a non-trivial Chinese population and an actual Chinatown (with an arch and everything) it’s got almost no superlative Chinese food. You may think that the odds of a town having good Italian food are greater than it having good Chinese food, but we come up mostly empty on both fronts. I suppose at least with Italian food we could argue that the east coast is the place to go for that. But, I would have imagined that Italian food has ingrained itself more deeply (or at least earlier) in the American culinary psyche.

While Lampreia’s food is from the Alto-Adige region of Italy, and I love every bit of it, I wouldn’t say that going there scratches my itch for Italian food. Tavolata opened recently and I still haven’t made up my mind about it. Beyond that the place I rely on the most for high quality hyper simple Italian dishes is Da Pino’s. Pino cures his own meat, and serves simple, flavorful fresh dishes. But refined AND traditional Italian food? It still escapes Seattle, until that is Spinasse arrived.

Spinasse talks the talk. The window declares “Trattoria Pastificio Artigianale”. I don’t speak Italian but I’m guessing that’s some variation on artisanal pasta restaurant. And honestly, that’s one word more than you need to get me to show up. Spinasse is adorable of course. Small, and homey and instantly comfortable. I really don’t care much about decor (or all that much beyond the service) but the atmosphere at Spinasse is notable in how ably it projects the image of the small authentic artisanal pasta restaurant.

I’m always in a quandary in terms of how excited I should get about a plate of prosciutto as it relates to the restaurant itself. On the one hand, you could serve me some good prosciutto at Burger King and I’d be in love. But, it does take some expertise to make sure to get quality product and serve it well. Regardless of how much credit accrues to the establishment, I find it difficult to complain about a plate covered in delicious cured ham.

Next up is the pasta but I want to talk about that last as it’s clearly the center of attention at Spinasse. The meat dishes, notably the succulent and juicy braised duck leg, the bursting savory handmade sausage, and the absolutely melting squab were all excellent. Juicy, savory, warm, and deep. We did have a some rabbit on our most recent visit that came out dry. That was disappointing but definitely the exception.

The pasta though is really the signature of the restaurant. I’ve been to Spinasse three separate times and think I finally know how I feel. The single best pasta dish on the menu is the artichoke ravioli with sage butter and pine nuts. I have it every time. It’s gentle and warm. Like a quartet of french horns. Buttery, nutty, with a slight tanginess from the cheese. I love and hate finding a favorite dish. Only because I worry that by ordering it I will limit myself from trying other exciting dishes. Luckily, on our last trip we ordered Spinasse’s entire menu. No chance of missing anything that way. The other pasta dishes are good as well, the ragu, etc. The first time I was there I ordered one of the pasta dishes with truffles, and honestly the truffles were not super flavorful. I have a hard time faulting the restaurant for this too badly. A lot of times to get the best truffles you have to get them via mail from Italy. Once the thing shows up, if its not as pungent as it should be it’s not like a small restaurant can eat the cost. The best they can do is tell their supplier to do a better job next time or switch suppliers. But I’m not expert so I’m speculating.

The real issue is the other pasta dishes. They’re good, but they don’t leave the warm tonal range set by the ravioli. It’s not that they all taste like butter and nuts. But they are all in the subtler part of the range with a warm gentle savory quality. This of course is not a bad thing. But it can get a little repetitive. I’m not savvy enough about the region the food comes from to know if I’m longing for flavors that are just not at home for this restaurant, but for me I find the range a touch more narrow than I’d like. It’s not that it would stop me from coming to Spinasse, but it might make me come less often.

One other note, Spinasse has communal seating, which isn’t my favorite, but is absolutely unloved by many of my regular dinner companions. You have to request in advance the one table for four that doesn’t involve listening in on anyone else’s dinner blather. I understand why they do communal sitting. It’s a small restaurant, and the rent ain’t cheap. But it’s not for everyone.

Bottom line, Spinasse is lovely. They’re trying hard, and Seattle is lucky to have them. That said, I know they have a talented new chef transitioning into the lead role. My last visit was likely too early to experience him putting his mark on the menu. But I do hope that while he preserves everything that’s good about Spinasse, he expands on those basic values of authentic/simple/subtle/fresh to a broader range of flavors. I’m sure I’ll be back.